When I was in school, I never thought much about the sex education that we received, I never spoke to anyone about any curiosities or questions that I had, there were so many things I did not know I did not know. Sexual wellness and health was not an issue anywhere I looked.
Now, as I am learning so much about sexual wellness, at the ripe old age of 36, I’m almost wondering, is it too late? Could they not have taught us about desire, anatomy, danger, emotion, at a younger age when they had the chance? When I did more research into sex education in Singapore, I found, as many will find, that the programme has a strong slant on abstinence, and the programmes are not taught by specialised or qualified sex educators.
About Up and Out
When I first chanced upon @upand.out on Instagram, I was pleasantly surprised at such an account coming from Singapore. It is informative and visually appealing, with facts backed by science and bodies of authority. It looked like the work of a smart, young individual. And I was excited to meet the brains behind it.
And boy, I was not disappointed. Vanessa is an open-minded, straightforward, intelligent lady who saw the gaps in the sex education sessions provided in our system, and paved her own way and embarked on her own mission to look at different resources and other avenues of obtaining information. I had a candid chat with her about her journey to becoming a resource portal and learned a lot just from talking to her.
Up and Out started as a blog, because Vanessa wanted a place where she could consolidate resources, post information, and her thoughts on taboo subjects such as mental health, the local prison system, schizophrenia, disabilities; topics that our conservative society somehow refuses to normalise, and sometimes even reject. When she started with tackling sex education, and delving deeper everyday into the topic, she found that to properly shed light on sex education and investigate topics around it required more time than she thought, and the other subjects would just have to take a back seat.
What was sex education like in school?
An article by Channel News Asia highlights that external vendors for sex education in schools have not been used since 2017. Though the Ministry of Education has six pillars for sex education, there is a large emphasis on abstinence before marriage and forming a stable nuclear family unit. One of the six pillars says that parents play the primary role in educating their children on sex and sexuality, yet a recent AWARE (Association of Women for action and research) survey found that only half of parents are comfortable talking to their children about s-e-x. If today’s youth are not able to ask questions or receive information about sex, love and relationships, and unable to talk to their parents about it, where else can they turn to besides to each other and the Internet?
Vanessa does not remember exactly what was taught to her at sex education in her school, but she did tell me that it was done level-wide in the school’s auditorium, sporadically. Immediately here, I thought, geez that’s impersonal – an intimate subject, reduced to an hour long public show and tell of textbook scenarios (read: get married). She then went on to say that even though bits of information here and there were possibly about other types of relationships, eventually, it all boiled down to the Singaporean ideal of a nuclear family unit.
In my opinion, people don’t remember something if it’s traumatic or terribly boring, and sex education for 200 students in an auditorium sounds like it could be both. I know I probably did not pay attention or remember anything from sex education classes because it just did not make an impact.
“They actively avoid talking about it.”
I asked her where her sources are for her blog and Instagram posts, and she said the CDC and Planned Parenthood are excellent places to start. I pointed out that examples of resources she had given where people can go to are all overseas, and she said, “The thing is, even though these institutions are overseas, I feel like the information is applicable anywhere – a human body is a human body”. We both agree that there is a general misconception that articles or sources on sex education based outside of Singapore is not relevant to us, but as Vanessa said, unless our Asian anatomy differs from other races, it does not matter where the information comes from.
By her own admission, in her teens, she too did not bother to learn more about sexual health and wellness; like a typical student in school, she sat through what was fed and did not question much. It was not until her first serious relationship did she start to realise that she had little idea and awareness about sexuality, sexual activity, the anatomy about the opposite sex. She realised that the sex education she had received as a teenager was just not enough.
Perhaps part of the problem too, as Vanessa points out, is that people just don’t talk about sex, sexuality, sexual health and awareness enough; they actively avoid talking about it.
“We can help them to find their place in society.”
In the name of sex education, perhaps remaining silent does more harm than good. To this day, there are parents who think that their child can be “cured” from homosexuality, that their child’s sexual orientation can be reconfigured from gay to straight. I don’t need science to tell you that growing up is tough, being different is even harder, having nowhere to turn to and seek comfort is the nail in the coffin in a teenager’s formative years.
Inclusive portrayals of people who are seen as different from us, conversations about all types of loving relationships, and support from families and friends is critical to cultivating a healthy, stable relationship with ourselves.
Because as Vanessa says, “Even if they [youths] are not curious, and they are just maturing, exploring their sexuality or maybe they are realising something different about their sexuality, they will know what they are feeling is not wrong. It will help those who don’t feel “typical” or part of the majority and it may help them find their place in society.”
What are some of the things you would do if you were tasked to change sex education in Singapore?
Take the focus away from abstinence or gunning for marriage.
Portray different types of people – aromantic, LGBTQ etc.
Get actual sex educators down to school, instead of teachers who are not equipped with the proper tools.
Be more inclusive about all aspects of sexual health and awareness, such as about abuse for example.
Organise workshops in small groups to facilitate sharing in a safe space.
“I can only share other people’s stories.”
Many times throughout our chat, Vanessa stressed that she is not a licensed sexologist, psychologist, she does not even study the subject. But I think that’s the beauty of it, hers is a voice of her surroundings, it’s a voice of the everyday person. Her friends appreciate what she does, some have even started to go to her for advice on their sex life, health, relationships, and she sheepishly says it’s nice.
I think it’s more than nice, I think it’s so generous, giving your time to help. Here, though I have only ever spoken to Vanessa for an hour on Zoom, I know she will say she’s not qualified to help anyone, and she can just share other people’s stories, but in my experience, that usually helps people more than we know. It’s sharing amongst friends, then peers, then normalising the conversation in society.
Vanessa said she thinks change should first happen from the ground up, from your families and peers. And you know what, she might not be so keen to acknowledge it, but I have a sneaky feeling she knows exactly what she’s doing.